In an Alternative Universe...
by Alex Patico, Columbia MD
Often more heat than light is generated by the scandals that have rocked the Church. Lawsuits and forced retirements in the OCA, the Antiochian Church in an uproar over what many perceive as the demotion of their bishops, and recinding of self-rule. Other jurisdictions struggle with abuse or arbitrariness, growth and governance. The rending of garments is back in vogue, big-time.
If old policies are bankrupt, is there a recovery package that will restore the economia? Both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama were known for "The Speech" -- one public utterance that was judged to be pivotal because it offered both passion and clarity, one that embodied both the best of tradition and yet offered a startlingly fresh outlook. What would the ecclesiastical equivalent of such a speech look like?
A Pastoral Letter
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
"One Orthodox Christian is no Orthodox Christian."
We are mutually interdependent, and must live each day in the light of that knowledge. Our tradition of conciliarity demands transparency and accountability. Our tradition of obedience and unity demands that we avoid dissension for its own sake, or splintering apart merely to remove the irritant of the moment. Our tradition of asceticism demands that we look at our own souls.
Obedience, however, does not obviate the necessity to exercise discernment and to be ever attentive to conscience. The principle of unanimity -- if posed in contradistinction to the 'law of love' -- the necessity to treat all within the Church with compassion -- is promoted improperly.
Metropolitan Jonah has said, "The bishop is entrusted with responsibility for every aspect of the life of the Church." Similarly, Metropolitan Phillip said, in 1998, "One of the basic principles of Orthodox ecclesiology was clearly stated by Saint Cyprian of Carthage who wrote: 'You ought to know that the Bishop is in the Church and the Church is in the Bishop and if there is anyone who is not with the Bishop, he is not in the Church.'" From these words, one can infer that each hierarch has a sacred trust to prevent physical, financial, moral or spiritual harm to any member of the Body of Christ -- but most especially at the hands of those ordained to holy stations within the Church itself.
The fact that there is evidence that such harm may have occurred within Orthodoxy causes me grief at my core. The position of the Church must always be with the lowly and the vulnerable, for 'these the least of my brethren,' as we know from Matthew 25, have a special place in the heart of Our Lord. We must forthrightly stand with those who submit to authority because, unless they are assured that such authority will be wielded with justice and probity, prudent self-preservation may cause them to depart from under its mantle -- i.e., to separate themselves from the Holy Church.
Certainly, the Church must greet those who transgress with compassion. Again, in the words of Metropolitan Jonah, "When we lose sight of our own sinfulness, and start blaming and judging others, we have lost our Christianity. If we want vengeance and retribution, we trample on Christ and the Gospel." But this does not mean that we may ever fail to take both the preventive and remedial measures needed to assure victims (or potential victims) of any kind of abuse that the Church stands with them as their protector and as co-sufferer in their anguish.
As an indication of my solemn commitment to making the Church the spiritual 'hospital' that it was founded to be, rather than a spiritual 'chamber of horrors,' even in the smallest corner, I will immediately implement measures designed to restore the essential confidence in the goodness and benignity of the ecclesia itself. We will:
Treat any allegation of sexual or psychological abuse, first and foremost, as a sign that one or more members of the Body of Christ need our care and compassion. Every member of every congregation should know what resources exist (including, but also beyond, their own parish priest), to find solace, support and impartial advice.
Recognize that financial or fiduciary abuses undermine the trust that must always exist between the laity and the hierarchy -- else why would the wealth generated by the individual labor of believers ever be channeled into ecclesiastical coffers?
Create an autonomous entity charged with responding with sensitivity to allegations of abuse of moral or ethical standards, secular law or canons of the church, so that no such charge goes uninvestigated;
Keep open avenues for healing and reconciliation while an investigation is taking place. Moreover, it will be the policy of the Church that pastoral care does not end with the institution of a legal proceeding, nor even with the ultimate resolution, if any, of a court. Our charge from God is separate from, and supersedes, what may or may not be required by statute or judicial ruling;
Institute screening of candidates for holy office (from Reader to Metropolitan) at each stage of advancement, to include an independent psycho-social evaluation, for clergy and others placed in positions of pastoral authority; and background checks for those who may be in close contact with youth or others of special vulnerability, or those charged with disbursal of funds;
Counsel, reprimand or retrain any person in a position of responsibility who does not adhere to the highest standards; and
Depose (not transfer) any whose offenses prove to be of such seriousness that they cannot safely continue in a role of authority within the Church.
It is, at the end of the day -- in truth, at the end of our earthly existence -- only humility and repentance that will provide the key to unlock the door God longs to open to us. All should know that I recognize that I place my eternal soul in jeopardy if I fail to fulfill, myself, the kind of accountability that I expect of others. May God have mercy on me, a sinner.
A simple question arises: Why have we not heard such a statement from any of the bishops of our Church? It would not hamper any cleric in the performance of his rightful duties. It would not interfere with any aspect of the proposed restructurings of this or that jurisdiction. It might complicate a current legal proceeding, but it might also avoid many. Such a statement would merely place the Church "on the side of the angels."
However did she leave it in the first place?